Use Sheep Behaviour to Your Advantage When Designing Handling Facilities
Table of Contents
Producers who understand sheep behaviour can use this knowledge to their advantage in all aspects of sheep production and management. Whether setting up and using handling and shearing facilities, moving the flock to a new pasture or catching an individual sheep, taking their behaviour into account ensures the job is completed in an efficient, low-stress manner.
When moving or handling sheep, keep the following aspects of their behaviour in mind:
These observations of sheep behaviour have been established by people who have worked with sheep for many years under a wide range of conditions. Because these behaviours are very predictable, they can be used to the producer's advantage in all aspects of sheep management.
Taking sheep behaviour into account when managing your flock creates positive results:
Sheep handling in "make-do" pens is not only hard, difficult work, it is outright unpleasant. As a result, important jobs like vaccinating and deworming are often delayed or not done at all.
Well-designed sheep handling facilities are essential to a successful sheep production operation. Few other investments will create such labour efficiencies and savings. Most producers will only build, or purchase, one handling facility in their lifetime, so planning is essential.
Incorporate existing paddocks, laneways and barnyards into the handling system to allow for ample space when the flock is held in the yards for long periods of time. Sheep need to move smoothly between these areas with a minimum of fuss. To achieve this, a producer needs to understand how good design encourages the sheep and lambs to move ahead through the system without balking, thereby keeping problems for workers to a minimum.
Well-designed facilities are easy to operate, reducing stress, labour and their associated costs.
To ensure that the handling facility will accommodate all the required jobs, make a complete list of the operations that will be carried out, and plan how these jobs will be done.
A useful checklist includes:
Factors to be taken into consideration include:
In simple terms, handling facilities consist of:
Low-density holding areas
Most producers can use nearby pastures and laneways as their low-density holding areas. These areas need to be secure enough to prevent sheep (particularly lambs) escaping from one area to the next. Consider using net wire fencing with openings no larger than 15 cm by 15 cm, secured to closely spaced posts.
High-density holding areas
High-density holding areas need to be built with medium-to-strong fencing materials. Make the area big enough to hold two sheep in full fleece per square metre. This creates enough room to drive the group into the yards, while leaving space for gates to swing and dogs to work (if dogs are used). It is important to make these areas long and narrow so that it is easy to control groups while they are driven into the forcing (crowding) area. According to recommendations from Australia and New Zealand, these high-density holding areas should be no wider than 10 m. If greater capacity is needed, it is better to lengthen them, rather than making them wider (Conroy and Hanrahan, 1994).
Forcing (crowding) areas
A combined lead-up race and forcing pen that is 3 m wide has proven very effective in many handling facilities, particularly for large flocks. It allows large groups to be broken down into smaller groups for ease of handling. The drafting and working races will lead off from this area.
Triangular force pens (sometimes referred to as "V" force pens) are usually used in rectangular facilities and can be built in single or double forms (see Figure 1). In the single-triangular force pen, one side is an extension of the race fence, while the other side flares out at a 30-40 degree angle. The double force pen has two "wing" fences that flare out at similar angles and a central fence with a flip-flop gate at the race entrance to allow sheep to enter from either side.
Figure 1. Examples of successful force pen shapes. Adapted from H.M. Hamilton, 1990 and A. Barber & R. Freeman, 1993.
Curved force pens (bugle) were thought to take advantage of sheep's inclination to follow flock mates that "disappear" around a curve, and enable one person to efficiently process the sheep alone. However, more recent research has shown that in 1.5 m wide races, sheep move better through straight races than through curved races. Curved races are only superior when sheep move in single file (K. Ransom & P. Hanrahan, 1990).
Some force pen designs do not work efficiently and should be avoided. These include square-shaped pens and the double-triangular force pens without a central fence (see Figure 2). The major problem with both of these designs is that sheep can easily avoid entering the race by turning suddenly (ringing) at the race entrance (H.M. Hamilton, 1990).
For efficient drafting (sorting), the operator needs to be able to easily identify and draft the sheep he or she wishes to separate with a minimum of errors. To do this accurately requires an even flow of sheep. For small flocks, a two-way sort is satisfactory, but in larger-scale sheep operations, a three-way sort, using two gates, may be necessary.
Make the sorting race at least 3 m long, with the exit point showing a clear escape route for the sheep. The race walls need to have solid sides to prevent sheep from being distracted by those on the opposite side and disrupting the continuous flow of sheep. If the race is also used for drenching and vaccinations, consider a slightly wider race or one with adjustable sides.
Figure 2. Examples of unsuccessful force pen shapes. Adapted from H.M. Hamilton, 1990.
The draft gate needs to be at least 1 m long to allow sheep to exit the race easily. Draft gates shorter than this cause sheep (particularly heavy-wooled and pregnant ewes) to jam against the edge of the race when exiting, slowing the flow significantly. There is some debate as to whether the draft gate should be made of solid sheeting or panels that sheep can see through. In Design of Sheep Yards and Sheds, Barber and Freeman (1993) give the following reasons for using gates that sheep can see through:
On the other hand, they also list reasons for using solid draft gates:
Sheep yards need a multipurpose handling race for drenching, vaccinating and other activities. Most producers in Ontario will opt for this type of race rather than separate handling races and drafting races.
Figure 3. A floor plan to construct a bugle. Note the "planning point" from which all measurements start, which should be a survey stake or similar marker that remains in place throughout construction.
Several different types of handling races can be built:
A suitable handling race is 6-15 m long with sides 85 cm high.
Figures 3 and 4 show basic handling facility layouts for sheep flocks with the key components identified, which can be constructed on farm from common materials. Table 1 provides dimensions for the various components of handling facilities.
Figure 4. Basic handling facility layout for sheep flocks.
Table 1. Yard dimensions in centimetres (100 centimetres = 1 metre)
Loading Ramp to Truck
Adapted from Sheepyard and Shearing Shed Design, F. Conroy & P. Hanrahan, 1994.
Few sheep producers have adequate handling facilities. Many use the excuse that they are too expensive to purchase or their flock is not big enough to justify the cost of buying or building them. Ask any producer who has a handling facility and their response is they would not raise sheep without one. Why the differing views? The answer is in the savings in labour and associated costs to justify investing in handling facilities.
A survey of Irish sheep farmers showed that those with good handling facilities spent 5.1 hours per livestock unit less across livestock species than those with poor handling facilities (L. Connolly, Irish Farmers' Journal). At six sheep per livestock unit, that equates to savings of 51 minutes per ewe or 85 hours per 100 ewes each year.
Table 2. Dollar value of labour savings in commercial flocks of varying sizes using differing wage rates and the time saving of labour. Adapted from L. Connolly, Irish Farmers' Journal.
For a flock of 1,000 ewes, that is an extra 84.2 days that could be spent doing other things. If you value your time at $15 per hour, a handling facility will easily pay for itself in less than three years. Table 2 offers labour saving dollar values as a function of two flock sizes and different wages to demonstrate this point.
Just as important as the labour savings is the fact that all of those important handling jobs, like vaccination and deworming, get done when they should be done. Sorting for breeding, lambing, weaning and shearing takes very little time with a basic handling facility. In a basic setup, it is not uncommon for a single handler to be able to deworm or vaccinate 150 to 200 ewes per hour and sort 250 to 350 ewes per hour.
In summary, handling facilities:
If you currently do not have a handling facility and plan to continue raising sheep, you need to seriously question why you have not invested in one. Handling facilities are essential if producers expect to find any savings in labour and efficiencies in the management of their sheep.
Handling facilities that are designed and constructed to take advantage of sheep behaviour significantly reduce the stress of handling for the sheep and, just as importantly, for the handler. Sheep move willingly through such facilities, and handlers no longer dread those jobs that previously required brute strength to tackle, catch and move individual sheep.
This Factsheet was originally written by Anita O'Brien, Sheep and Goat Specialist, Economic Development Division, OMAFRA, Kemptville, and updated by Christoph Wand, Livestock Sustainability Specialist, Economic Development Division, OMAFRA, Guelph.
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